Reasons vs. Excuses

This is another in a series of what I call "therapeutic distinctions", pairs of words that initilly seem to be similar but which actually have subtle but important differences in meaning that are often helpful to consider. One such example is the relationship between "reasons" and "excuses".

The main distinguishing characteristic between a reason and an excuse is the issue of responsibility. An excuse is an attempt to evade full accountability for something that you did or didn't do. A reason, on the other hand, explains or describes the circumstances of an issue, action or situation without any attempt to avoid blame.

"I was speeding because I was late for work" may explain why you were exceeding the speed limit but it's not an excuse that's likely to work with the officer who pulled you over. Similarly, a spouse who says "I lied because I knew you'd be mad if I told you the truth" is attempting to justify or excuse inappropriate behavior.  (You may want to reqad my brief essay on the all-too-common misuse of the phrase you "made me".) By comparision, "I left the room because I was so mad I was afraid I would make things worse and I needed to calm down" is an example of responsible action; it is a reason that provides sufficient justification for an action.

The differences between reasons and excuses are subtle but crucial to consider in order to keep responsibility where it belongs. For instance, in my counseling practice clients are sometimes reluctant to examine their childhood because they don't want to blame something that happened in the past for their current difficulties.  Good for them!  However, I often try to help them understand that the goal of such exploration is to gain insight from the past in order to help empower change in the present, not to shift responsibility for what is currently happening on some "long-ago and far-away" person or event.  (It may be helpful to read another one of my reflections, "The Past Isn't Past".

Explanations are helpful when they provide context and understanding, not when they are used in an attempt to shift the blame.  My challenge and encouragement is this: vow to eliminate all excuses from your life and consistently accept responsibility for your actions.  This is a way to maintain integrity and develop courage.  The effort is not always easy or successful, but it's an ideal worth striving for.


Bill Herring helps people live better lives.  He has gained a reputation for helping couples wounded by chronic deception, sexual betrayal and unhealthy use of pornography.